A few of his films have been fun. But the vast majority of his movies are uneven sketches with only imaginative titles like The Disorderly Orderly, The Family Jewels and Hardly Working as their sole creative contribution. To call Lewis's catalog inconsistent is like referring to Hitler as a misguided student of foreign policy, and this is perhaps the reason why the public – correct that, the AMERICAN public - have given him the respect snub job. But after revisiting The Nutty Professor from 1963, especially in the brand new, excellent special edition DVD release by those pioneers of paltry product, Paramount, one finally begins to see the laughter-based light. Not only is The Nutty Professor one of the better, most consistent comedies from the early 60s, it showcases the intense technical and artistic craft Lewis had developed with a camera.
The Nutty Professor is Jerry Lewis's crowning achievement. It is his most cinematic film, and his more natural motion picture experience. Gone is the reliance on blackouts and skit-like set pieces, sequences that seem to function at direct odd to the narrative. Also absent are the stupid celebrity cameos that turn even the most straightforward story into a video diversion of point out the silly stars. While other offerings in his diverse, dense canon are far more hilarious (The Errand Boy and Who's Minding the Store come to mind) this is Lewis's most fully realized vision. If ever there was a film to suggest Jerry's genius behind, as well as in front of the camera, Professor is it. While we'll never know if he could actually helm a straight ahead serious drama (The Day the Clown Cried languishes in legal rights limbo, while that Italian idiot Roberto Benigni gets to muddle up the Holocaust with his own concentration camp comedy Life is Beautiful. Is there no justice?) this anarchic take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as close to a faultless funny film as post-studio system movies get. Rich in its Technicolor cinematography, masterfully shoot and edited, and containing perhaps the archetypal Lewis performance(s), The Nutty Professor is an endearing and entertaining twist on a well-known horror story. And the results just get better with age.
The reason for Professor's superiority is the carefully crafted and created characterizations. In buck toothed loser Julius Kelp, the comic tosses aside all of his former shtick - rife with audience asides and hyperactive tomfoolery - to actually turn this timid teacher into a real three-dimensional delight. From the physics defying haircut (which seems to actually shift and mutate from scene to scene) to the ultimate, omnipresent overbite, Lewis walks the walk, talks the beautifully accented talk and instills Julius Kelp with just the right amount of lovable loser pathos to get us cheering for him right off the bat. We instantly fall for this funny, fragile human being and are willing to follow him all over the witticism map – from over the top slapstick (the entire Vic Tanny gymnasium set piece) to the more subtle, stellar moments (it's impossible NOT to laugh as Julius dances a private, jerky jitterbug while attending the prom). Kelp is never pushed into pathetic or polarizing territory, thanks in most part to Lewis's amazing acting. While others may look at the chemically inspired alter ego as the most novel and nuanced character in the film, it is Julius that requires a well-honed execution to sell successfully. And as good as he is as Buddy Love, (see below) Lewis is absolutely magnificent as Kelp. It is the performance that created the icon, the spastic, braying jackass imitation aped by countless comedians and a certain Simpson's scientist named Frink.
Buddy Love is indeed a true ironic invention here. Lewis has often said that Love was an extension of his real personality, a representation of the horrible, heinous side we all keep buried deep down inside ourselves. A notorious perfectionist with a more than prickly personality, Lewis was and is still known as a terribly difficult person to work with. Lost in a cult of his own personality and worshipping the reflection he sees in the doting eyes of those around him, Jerry is just notorious – and is there a better explanation of Love than that? While Julius gets all the physical gags, Lewis saves the savvy smart-assed stuff for Buddy, and his dialogue exchanges throughout The Nutty Professor are priceless (who could forget the sequences that start with the classic lines "Please Mr. Barroom Brawler..." or "What'll It Be, Hmmm?..."). Buddy is not a pleasant character. He is not a loveable lout with the ability to be both an asshole and a charmer. Buddy is everything that Julius is not – the very definition of the Jekyll and Hyde ideal. But Lewis takes it a step further and emphasizes the more disgusting and misogynist aspects of Love's personality. As a result, Buddy becomes the almost-extinct man of the post-war world, the last of a dying breed of super slick pricks. The reason he stands apart so fervently in The Nutty Professor is because we don't see many Buddy Loves in today's modern, PC society. The 60s and 70s eradicated such a swaggering abomination from our acceptable approaches to human interaction.
Another innovation Lewis offers in Professor is the desire to keep the necessary romantic element odd and off kilter throughout most of the movie. Stella Stevens, playing the appropriately named Ms. Purdy, has a unique reaction to Buddy when she first meets him. Instead of swooning in instant infatuation, she gives him a very bold and very brave brush off. The formula tells us that boy meets girl, and within a few cleverly crafted lines of script, the two are preparing to pet. But in Professor, Lewis allows Stevens a chance to actually make up her mind, to weigh the pros and cons of Mr. Love's loathsome lothario routine and decide whether she wants to be a part of it. Some may consider Ms. Purdy a curvaceous bit of early 60s eye candy that doesn't really know what she wants. But instead of making Stella a push over, we are witnessing the birth of the romantic equal – a concept that will come to be part of every guy/gal date film for years to come. Professor moves away from the typical Tinsel Town ideal because Lewis understands that if Buddy wins from the beginning, there is no hope for the Julius/ Stella match-up. There needs to be some manner of pause in how Ms. Purdy approaches Buddy, and both the writing and Stella Stevens's performance manage the difficult balancing act very well. It is just one example of many where Lewis uses his knowledge of performance and his own personal vision to make something unique and memorable out of what would basically be a standard Hollywood lame love triangle.
Lewis was also clever enough and conscious of the fact that if he surrounded himself with terrific supporting players, those actors would fill out Professor's boisterous blanks in superb style. And he is 100% right. Del Moore, who many may remember as the scroll stealing Arthur Duval in Catalina Caper (featured as part of a classic episode of the best television show of all time, Mystery Science Theater 3000), plays Dr. Hamius Warfield (the Dean of the college) with masterful comic timing and pompous pitch perfection. His double takes and exasperated emotional eruptions are absolutely hysterical. Equally effective are Howard Morris (Ernest T. Bass from The Andy Griffith Show) and Elvia Allman as Julius' henpecked father and overbearing mother, respectively. Though they only have two short scenes in the film, they invigorate the proceedings with their carefully crafted crackpot characterizations. No Lewis film would be complete, however, without Kathleen Freedman (a face so familiar in the clan of character actors that to try and name a few of her 141 film roles would be pointless) and she's graceful here, playing Dean Warfield's secretary with just the right amount of playful puzzlement. From the far too old to be college students extras that make up the vast majority of the crowd at the local happening hang-out The Purple Pit, to an appearance by Les Brown and His Band of Renown (big band brashness being Lewis's idea of 1963 hipster cool) Professor is packed with artifacts that create a terrific, tantalizing whole. The reason this movie feels like a fully realized film is simple – from top to bottom, the smallest detail to the biggest, broadest stroke, it really is a complete entertainment.
Vibrant with color, alive with comic invention and filled to bursting with original elements, The Nutty Professor is a near-masterpiece of comedic filmmaking. It gets to the heart of Robert Lewis Stevenson's classic story about a man experimenting with and exploring his own inner demons and runs it through a humorous rumination on social acceptance and human frailty. It contains moments of undeniable buffoonery braced by a startling set of acting performances. But this is, first and foremost, a Jerry Lewis vehicle and he drives this diversion all the way to the outskirts of outrageousness. From his work as both Kelp and Love, to the attention to detail in his framing and composition, Lewis manages an amazing feat with this film. He simultaneously silences critics who claim he can't perform in any capacity except as a drooling dipstick, while solidifying his mantle as a moviemaker of incredible skill. While there will always be some who are flummoxed by this flailing, fractured circus of a human being, a movie like The Nutty Professor should address the concerns of those curious about the comic in fine, funny style. It is a classic slice of screwball silliness.
Even better though are the two documentaries, each about 30 minutes in length. The first covers the making of The Nutty Professor and it has a great deal of the behind the scenes secrets we were looking for in the commentary. Lewis is on hand, as well as Stevens and several of the crew to talk about creating this unique and unusual film. While some of the material is vague and a little self-congratulatory, the chance to see footage of Lewis's make-up tests, his specific storyboards for certain scenes and the auteur's approach to working with actors is very insightful. For this feature alone, this latest version of The Nutty Professor is worth the upgrade. But the overview of Lewis's first few films as a solo actor/neophyte director is absolutely fascinating. During the course of this amazing featurette's overview, we get to hear from scholars as well as past participants, about the impact of Lewis's filmmaking on the world of cinema. They discuss the reasons behind his initial forays into filmmaking (sadly, this seems like the first part of a multi-part presentation) and explain the approach taken on each film. Between the archival footage, the motion picture scholarship and the chance to hear individuals define and redefine Lewis's style and impact (including his invention of the video playback system for directors), this is a magnificent addition to the DVD. Just be warned – it does end with The Patsy, and skips several films like The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy in the Lewis chronology. Here's hoping there is a part two out there somewhere.
On the archival side, the deleted/alternative scenes are interesting, but not crucial to your appreciation of The Nutty Professor. Lewis only excised material that would have detracted from, not improved, his overall narrative, and the chance to see the sequences firsthand confirms his editorial choices. The outtakes are interesting, because they show how serious Lewis took the filmmaking process. There was always a public perception of the performer as a weird, goofy jokester, but watching him work to perfect a particular moment is captivating. In combination with the other contextual elements offered here, the DVD presentation of The Nutty Professor puts previous editions to shame, and becomes a highlight in the re-release of Lewis's Paramount catalog.